What’s it all about, America? David Hoppe Nothing illustrates this country’s failure to define its values like the ongoing struggle over what to do about the estimated 12 million people who are currently living and working here illegally. The hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in recent weeks have posed a giant question: What’s it all about, America? A kind of spluttering sound has been the answer. The issue, we are constantly reminded, is a complicated one. That’s because it braids equal strands of mythology, paranoia and greed. The mythology part has to do with the nostalgic view of America being the Land of Immigrants. Like all clichés, this has an element of truth to it. Leaving aside the ever-inconvenient Indians (who, after all, allegedly trooped over here via a land bridge in the Bering Sea), the fact is that most of us have ancestors who were either forced out of some other country or became so sick and tired of conditions there that they decided to take a chance on someplace new. So most of our families originated elsewhere. Fine. But we’re here now, not there. Most of us don’t speak the languages our ancestors spoke. And, for many of us, the idea that this place, this “America,” must be committed to a never-ending stream of strangers from other lands with customs and agendas we can only guess at unsettles aspects of life we wish were … settled. This is where paranoia comes in. While we like to think that the American way of life is self-evidently superior to all others, that, once bitten by the freedom bug, people will be eager to adopt credit cards, single family homes and cable TV, current events suggest that our clinging to this belief is a little like whistling past a graveyard. There appear to be folks out there who, at the very least, regard us with contempt. That, of course, doesn’t keep them from wanting to cross our borders — defining opportunity in ways the rest of us may find dubious. Which brings us to greed. If the ruckus over immigration was simply a battle between mythology and paranoia, inclusion versus exclusion, people on both sides could take their stands and make their arguments in plain language. But the fact is that America has come to depend on illegal labor. Some like to say that this is because illegal immigrants are willing to do the work other Americans won’t do. What they leave out are the parts about willing to work for substandard wages and in lousy conditions. America has failed to protect its borders not because it can’t, but because it has developed a taste for artificially cheap goods and services. Just as we have been happy to outsource manufacturing jobs to Asia in exchange for everything from clothing to children’s toys, we have imported Third World labor in order to discount our produce and hotel rooms. President Bush, along with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, has attempted to split the difference by proposing a “guest worker” program. Workers would be allowed into the country on a temporary basis. Whether or not this might qualify for eventual citizenship is unclear. In any event, it would perpetuate a Third World labor pool within our borders, better profits for employers and cheap prices for consumers. It would institutionalize an underclass. But we might be more willing to go down this road than to come to grips with what it means to be a citizen of the United States in the 21st century. For several generations now, we’ve tried to define our society not in terms of what it is, but what it is not. The Melting Pot, for example. This image went hand-in-hand with the great waves of immigration to this country from Europe. The Melting Pot suggested the idea that from many identities a new identity might be born. It promoted assimilation. This was easier said than done. But the idea of assimilation was valuable in that it attempted to make the Constitution and the Bill of Rights the basis for a common, civic culture that would transcend ethnic, racial and religious differences. It asserted that living here was, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, to hold certain truths to be self-evident. And if you weren’t willing to get with this program, you might be better off somewhere else. Over time, assimilation got a bad rap. It was used as a cover for bigotry and bullying. But rather than dealing with those abuses, we chose instead to repudiate the Melting Pot, to say, in effect, that this society could be anything anybody wanted it to be. If that felt like a kind of freedom, it was also incoherent. It has left us in the position of not knowing what to do, or even how to think, about the millions of illegal immigrants propping up our economy. “Yes we can,” chant the demonstrators in our streets. But what that really means is anybody’s guess.